Cities and Counties for Fine and Fee Justice

PolicyLink, The San Francisco Financial Justice Project and the Fines and Fees Justice Center launched Cities and Counties for Fine and Fee Justice to support localities that want to assess and reform fines, fees, tickets, and financial penalties that often have an adverse and disproportionate impact on low-income people and people of color. We are looking for innovators in city and county government who want to take a leadership role in advancing fair and just policies to champion racial equity and smart government.

The network will help cities and counties identify and implement reforms that make a difference in the lives of low-income residents and are feasible for government to implement. Our long-term goal is to create a cohort of cities and counties that are acting as national leaders by creating models of innovative and effective reforms and inspiring localities across the country to do the same.

Examples of County and City-Level Fines and Fees Reforms

San Francisco County, CA eliminated all county-imposed criminal justice fees in 2018 and moved to discharge $33 million in criminal justice debt owed by more than 21,000 people. This effort was led by network partner Financial Justice Project, based in the San Francisco Treasurer’s office, which has been a trailblazer in fines and fees reform since 2016. San Francisco also made jail phone calls free, ended commissary markups, reduced boot and tow fees for low-income residents, reformed payment plans for parking tickets, and implemented ability-to-pay determinations for traffic fines and fees. A full list of San Francisco fines and fees reforms is available here, as well as a guide to fine and fee discounts for low-income San Franciscans.

Alameda County, CA’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to eliminate criminal justice administrative fees in 2019, including fees charged for a public defender, monthly probation supervision fees, and several others.

Contra Costa County, CA’s Board of Supervisors approved an indefinite moratorium on criminal justice administrative fees in 2019, including probation fees, public defender fees, and alternative custody programs such as electronic monitoring and work alternatives to incarceration.

The City of Los Angeles voided nearly 2 million minor citations and warrants that had kept people trapped in the court system. The announcement was designed to fix a system that has led to many people being repeatedly ticketed and arrested for minor infractions, leading to growing fines and warrants. In 2018, Los Angeles County also discharged almost $90 million in debt owed by families for juvenile detention fees; California Senate Bill 190 ended the assessment of juvenile fees in 2018, but did not require counties to end collection of outstanding fees.

New York City became the first U.S. city to guarantee free jail phone calls in 2018. Just one week after this reform was implemented, call volume at the Rikers jail complex increased by 38%. Before 2018, NYC was generating about $5 million each year from jail phone call fees.

Shelby County, TN made all phone calls to juvenile detention facilities free in 2019. Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich also adopted a policy of declining to prosecute driving on a suspended license in cases where the license was suspended or revoked for nonpayment of fines and fees, reducing the office’s caseload by 43%.

Chicago recently announced it would end driver’s license suspensions for people who cannot pay city sticker fines and parking tickets; create more accessible payment plans for people with trouble paying; and end the practice of writing up city sticker violators twice in one day.

Durham, NC recently implemented a program with the District Attorney and the court to waive old traffic fines and fees and helped restore 35,000 driver’s licenses that had been suspended for non-payment.